My greatest nemesis: The ampersand

Franchesca Spektor/Staff

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All punctuation has its place. There are ample, established rules for the commas, semicolons, parentheses, etc. that make up the grammar everyone knows and loves. We know when to use them and where they go — there’s structure and there are patterns we know and learn. Nonetheless, one grammatical mark in particular defies all of these constructs: the ampersand, or &.

The ampersand started as a relatively sensical piece of typography before devolving into its current usage. It is technically a logogram, meaning it is a symbol used in language that represents a word — in this case “and.” More specifically, it originally served as the ligature for “et,” the Latin word for “and,” meaning that the “e” and “t” were joined together in a single glyph. The word designating the symbol is, fittingly, also a sort of mashup of the phrase “and per se.”

Now, this all seems superfluous for a word that is only three letters and a single syllable. Why do we need a fancy symbol for this? Well, the continued existence of the ampersand seems to suggest we do. But this usage suggests a convolutedness that transcends this simple claim to efficiency.

Evolving from the Latin “et” in old Roman cursive, the ampersand continued to be used in English and Romance languages as Latin died out as a widely written language, and it especially picked up with the development of printing around the time of the Renaissance. In the following centuries, the ampersand was sometimes considered the 27th letter of the alphabet.

Today, it is incorporated into Unicode standards as punctuation, although it doesn’t exactly fit into the same category as any other punctuation mark. That is, it doesn’t have clear rules and it doesn’t always clarify language. And punctuation is all about rules and clarifying language!

As a copy editor, the ampersand can be particularly infuriating as to where and when to use it. Often when it appears, its usage is obsolete and inconsistent. For example, a restaurant will use the so-perceived flourish of an ampersand in its title on its signage, but not on its website or promotional literature. “Which one is it?!” we scream into the night.

I understand the aesthetic value of the ampersand — it is essentially universally understood and does add some flair that Roman letters just don’t carry. And yet again, it isn’t exactly easy to write one in regular script without looking like a knockoff treble clef. To be fair, in my own handwriting I usually opt for a single line resembling a plus sign (+, approximately).

There are a few utilizations of the ampersand that are relatively well-defined — such as the case of needing a shortened amount of lettering. An ampersand is well-suited for a tweet (although also, the plus sign could function here just as well). Accreditation is often cited as a primary use, as in the example of two screenwriter, or in the case of a dually owned business (Johnson & Johnson). Yet, in its most simple form, serving as a stand-in for “and,” it is most often useless. It would look strange and/or unprofessional to use “&” in normal copy or academic writing.

AP Stylebook recommends the use of the ampersand “if, and only if, a proper noun requires its use” and to otherwise favor “and.” And so, while all of the other punctuation in this rant has its place, the ampersand just cannot make the mark.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @camlabell.